The Importance of Falling, Again and Again

10 Nov

People I meet who don’t know climbing often ask me, “Do you ever fall?” At first, it seems like a ridiculous question. I fall every day, countless times, sometimes off the same pebble sticking out of the wall.

I beat my hands up until they bleed, torn from unsuccessful efforts. I squish my feet into downsized rubber shoes to heighten sensitivity and control. I go through this process repetitively, fighting for the slight chance that, this time, I won’t fall. And when I finally don’t, I feel this unparalleled, overwhelming sensation of personal satisfaction. On some trips, that moment never happens.

But really, how much does that send matter? Is the successful climb that much more significant than the climbs of the previous days, when I fell and fell?

Recently, I returned to Spain to work on a specific personal project: a climb at a crag called Oliana. I spent the first half of the year there, first training with Patxi Usobiaga, then climbing outside with friends. I kept falling, and the send eluded me.

I had graduated from Columbia University in 2016 and was starting my first year with no school commitments. Earning my degree is one of my proudest achievements—it even trumps winning the world championships—but once I took off the cap and gown for good, I felt aimless. I didn’t know what would come next. It didn’t help that my transition back into full-time climbing was rocky. I nursed a bad back injury for the first few months, and though I traveled and climbed in many incredible places, I felt uneasy. I like to juggle a lot of responsibilities—events, business opportunities, work with nonprofits—which at times may be a self-defense mechanism. There’s less pressure to do just one thing superbly. While in school, wearing a lot of hats gave me built-in excuses: if I failed at something, I could blame the workload.

Those circumstances prompted me to think deeply about what climbing means to me and what objectives I should consider noteworthy in the future. 

I have no concrete answers. But what I have learned is that the challenges that fire me up don’t need to have significance to anyone but myself. Moving forward, this is what I want to prioritize: test myself on terrain that I’m passionate about, try my hardest, and have fun. I want to seek the elusive flow that comes when I’m climbing my best. The point is that the reason a personal project is significant—regardless of what boundary it does or not break, what definition of success it meets—is because it matters to me.

Oliana, for whatever reason, mattered. I didn’t want to fail on this rock. After dedicating August and September to a focused training plan, constructed by Edu Marin, I returned to Oliana. My first day back on the route, I broke past a point that I had always fallen on throughout the spring. The moves felt like they were flowing together, and the burly cruxes felt well within my range.

On October 31, after just over a week of trying the climb, rehearsing sequences, and refining my beta, I sent it. When I started off the ground and climbed through the second main crux sequence, midway on the route, I had a smile on my face. I felt like this was my time. I didn’t know how I knew that, and I still had almost a hundred of feet of climbing to go. But something felt right. I tapped into this flow, hitting all the holds exactly how I wanted to. When I clipped my rope into the chains at the top, I actually thought I might be dreaming. As I lowered myself to the ground, everything felt perfect. I felt proud of how I climbed, motivated by the progress that I proved to myself was possible, and genuinely excited.

I climb because it’s the space in my life where I feel the most in control. My world is still when I’m on the wall, and my worries are about whether I’m going to hold onto that next little crimper. Whether I can accurately twist my body into the position it needs to be to make the subsequent move possible. The subtleties that make all the difference between success and failure.

And that feeling when I get to the top, it's like a hit of self-confidence-boosting dopamine. I feel good about myself when I climb something that I've worked hard on; there is this sense of confidence that comes with clipping the chains that has nothing to do with how anyone else in the world thinks of me or how I look at myself in the mirror. It feels damn good. 

Good enough to convince me to enjoy that fleeting high, then move on to the next project. And keep falling.

The Homemade Energy Bars That Power My Climbs

7 Oct

As a professional athlete, my career depends on a diet of nutritious, whole ingredients. When I do need to satisfy my sweet tooth, though, I opt for non-processed treats, like homemade cookies, made up of ingredients I already have in my pantry. I also need food that’s calorically dense: when I’m climbing a big wall, I haul all my provisions with me, and I don’t have much space to store my meals. When I’m sleeping on a tiny portaledge, I focus on nutritional efficiency.   

Over the years, I’ve found one food that consistently checks all those boxes: homemade energy bars. I don’t have a single recipe. Instead, I mix and match ingredients depending on my cravings and fitness goals. If I’m in a recovery period, I up the amount of protein (more nuts). If I need quick, fast-burning energy, I add more sugar and carbs (fruit and grains). 

Once I settle on a recipe, I dump all the ingredients in a blender. I’ve had a lot of luck with my Blendtec, but a Vitamix would serve just as well. My blender, with its 3.4-horsepower engine, has the power to liquify berries and turn nuts into paste. It’s powerful, versatile, and I use it almost every day. 

For my bars, I always start with the same basic foundation: a one-to-one ratio of oats to nuts. (You can also substitute the oats for cooked quinoa or brown rice, depending on your tastes.) I use honey and/or dates as the glue. Then I get creative. Here are some of my favorite recipes that you can also easily make at home. 

Raw Macadelicious Bars 

  • 2 cups oats
  • 2 cups macadamia nuts
  • 1 cup dates
  • 1 cup honey
  • ½ cup coconut flakes (medium)
  • ½ cup dried cranberries
  • 2 cups coconut flakes (small)
  • 2 cups chocolate chips 
  1. Place the macadamia nuts and oats into the blender. Blend together on Pulse until you get a flour-like consistency. 
  2. In a separate jar, blend the dates and the honey together with a spoon. Add to the oat-nut mixture, then blend together. 
  3. Add the coconut flakes (medium) and dried cranberries to the blender. Pulse till smooth. 
  4. Empty contents into a large bowl and mix in the small coconut flakes and the chocolate chips. 
  5. Dump the mixture into a cookie sheet, then pat down evenly so that the bars are roughly two inches thick. Cut evenly into rectangles, then cover with tinfoil and place in the freezer to harden. 
  6. After a few hours, individually wrap the bars in aluminum foil and have them anytime. 

Saharan Bars

  • 1 cup cooked quinoa
  • 1 cup almonds
  • 1/8 sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons flaxmeal
  • ¼ cup coconut nectar
  • 1 cup dates
  • 1 tbsp vanilla
  • 4 tbsp chia seeds
  • ½ cup chopped ginger
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a cookie sheet. 
  2. In blender, ground the almonds to a fine paste, then add the quinoa and blend together. 
  3. Add the flax and salt. 
  4. In a separate jar, blend the coconut nectar, dates, and vanilla. Combine this wet mixture with the dry ingredients. Then, mix in the chia seeds and chopped ginger. 
  5. Bake for 10 minutes. Let cool, then cut into rectangles. 

Peppy Paradise Bars

  • ½ cup Brazil nuts
  • ½ cup walnuts
  • 1 cup oats
  • 1 cup honey, 1 cup dates
  • 4 tbsp chia seeds 
  • 1 cup diced dried pineapple chunks
  • ½ cup dried wild blueberries
  • 1 cup shredded coconut
  • 2 tsp ground lemon rind
  • 1 tsp ground paprika
  1. Place the Brazil nuts, walnuts, and oats into the blender. Blend together until you get a flour-like consistency. 
  2. In a separate jar, blend the dates and the honey together. Then, add to the oat-nut mixture and blend. 
  3. Add the chia seeds, dried pineapple, dried blueberries, coconut, and lemon rind. Pulse a few times to mix. 
  4. Empty contents into a pan and pat down evenly so that the bars are roughly two inches thick. 
  5. Sprinkle paprika evenly over the top. Cut evenly into rectangles and then cover with tinfoil and place in the freezer to harden. 
  6. After a few hours, individually wrap the bars in aluminum foil and have them anytime.

This Is What Happens When You’re Forced to Unplug

23 Aug

When was the last time you went a day, maybe even a week, without your phone?

Before this month, I would’ve had to think hard to answer that question. I use Instagram daily. I post a photo every day, whether to communicate where I am, share my mood, or bring back a fond memory. It’s crucial brand building.

Late last year, I noticed a new habit: When my alarm clock went off in the morning, my thumbs would automatically migrate to Instagram or Twitter. Minutes after my alarm, I was already adjusting brightness and contrast filters on a photo or scrolling through a feed of others’ photos, windows into their lives.

This New Year’s Eve, I made a resolution to myself: One day a week I would unplug from my phone and the internet for a full 24 hours. It shouldn’t have been hard, yet I found myself dumbfounded when choosing which day to dedicate to this cleansing. During the week, my emails piled up. On weekends, I wanted to make plans with friends. My resolution fell through the cracks, week after week.

Then, involuntarily, I went three weeks without my phone on a big-wall climbing project in Madagascar.

The climb, Mora Mora, an 8c in Tsaranoro Valley, is situated in the heart of the island. Here, life is as the route is called in English—slow and steady.

Upon landing, my phone read “no service.” Having traveled around the world with an international cell plan, I figured it would just be a matter of time before the phone got online with the local provider. I turned the device off, reset it, and waited. During this time, my climbing partner and I boarded a bus to ride 16 hours toward Mora Mora. My phone never found service.

At home, my phone is how I tell time. Yet as we spent days on the wall, from sunrise to sunset, I learned to gauge the time by the sun’s relation to the wall. All we were doing was eating, sleeping, hiking, and climbing. Our focus was on what exactly we were doing each moment. The specific hours became less important.

Free from any sort of electronic device, I didn’t stress about posting on social media responding to emails, and I didn’t fall prey to any sort of FOMO. On the portaledge, we lay in our sleeping bags and counted shooting stars or listened to animal noises thousands of feet below as we sipped whiskey.

When I got back from Madagascar, I bought a watch to preserve some of this independence. Now I don’t use the phone as my alarm clock, and I don’t have to check it constantly to tell the time, though it is still my connection to work and friends. It’s a baby step, but hey, it’s a start.

What Life’s Really Like 1,400 Feet Up a Big Wall

18 Aug

My last climbing project was a 2,400-foot, 5.14b climb named Mora Mora. Located in Tsaranoro, Madagascar, the climb was bolted by Toti Vales and Francisco Vales in 1999, and free climbed by Adam Ondra in 2010. It had gone unrepeated since. 

Last month, Edu Marin and I traveled to Madagascar for three weeks to complete the climb. While there, we spent ten nights living on the wall. Now, in order to free climb a big wall like this, we needed to start from the bottom and send—climb without falling, using only the rock, with zero aid gear—from the bottom to the top in one consecutive push. That ultimately successful ascent took us three days. 
 
Before the final push, we placed our portaledge (think: a flat hammock) just below the 5.14b pitch, roughly 1,400 feet off the ground. Here’s how we lived on it for the next 10 days. 

P-20170809-00021
Sasha and Edu Marin organize their plan on the port-a-ledge. (Francois Leabeau/Red Bull Conten)

Eating and Drinking  

Our main goal when it came to meal prep was efficiency: everything needed to be planned out to the last ounce of water and energy bar. 

Every day, we rationed two liters of water for each of us. So when we packed our bags for the final three-day ascent, we were carrying along twelve liters of water total. We had to maximize calories, so we brought along lots of dense bars and snacks. I had homemade nut and oat bars, as well as rice cakes from a recipe I got out of Alan Skratch’s cookbook. I’d take a roll of white rice, then fill it with peanut butter, bacon and maple syrup. We also packed bread, honey, jam, beef, turkey jerky, canned fish, prepared pasta in zip-lock bags, and whisky. I need caffeine in the mornings, so while we didn’t have a JetBoil up there (an open flame on a portaledge can be dangerous), I’d bring a can of Red Bull (Disclaimer: They're also one of my sponsors), and espresso in a thermos. 

To get all this stuff up to our aerial camp, we placed it in a haul bag, which is specifically designed to be durable enough that it won’t shred to pieces as you pull it up a cliff. In order to haul is up, we used a mini traxion and a jumar. We attached the haul bag to a static line and pulled the load up on a rope that we used just for this purpose. 

Sleeping 

Imagine living for ten days on a double bed and you'll have some idea of what portaledge life is like. The two-person model we used is 84 inches long by 51 wide. To set it up, we hung in the anchor point on the wall, then constructed a web of metal poles and fabric that came together like a flat tent. 

Because the weather was warm and dry, we opted to ditch the upper portion of the portaledge, which would have served as wind and rain protection, to save weight—and so we could see the stars. 

While on the wall, I was always in my Petzl Hirundos harness, though, when I slept, I slipped off the leg loops and just left the waist band.

Going to the Bathroom 

Have you ever been shy to go to the bathroom when you’re on a date at someone else’s house? Well, when you're living on a portaledge, there's no room for such modesty. 

For guys, peeing with a harness on is really easy: just stand up and point off the side of the platform. Ladies have it harder. We need to squat off the side and maneuver our pants down while wearing a harness. It’s not as difficult as you may think, it just takes some balance while perching off the side of the metal beams, with a large vertical drop below. 

Going number two is even less sexy. In this scenario, you have plastic bags that you go into, which you then tightly close and put into a “poop tube”—a smell-proof, leak-proof container. I think of it as a mobile Porta-Potty. 

Rural Indonesia Is the Next Great Climber’s Paradise

12 Jul

Last January, Andy Cochrane, the marketing director of Oru Kayak, approached me with an idea: partner with the boat manufacturer to explore and promote rural Indonesia’s potential new ecotourism opportunities.  

The country is geographically stunning, and offers the promise of world-class rock climbing. We were particularly interested in Mollo, the most fertile region in West Timor island, located on the slopes of the Mutis mountain range whose peaks reach heights of up to 8,000 feet. 

indonesia-rocks.jpg
(Adam Wells)

For the past two decades, mining companies have ravaged this area: in 1994, there were about five companies extracting marble from Mollo towns. As mining activities began, the locals suffered the consequences. Forests were cut down, creating massive landslides, and the water was made undrinkable by pollutants. On June 3, 2000, Aleta Baun (she goes by Mama Aleta) lead thousands of people from the Mollo, Amanatun, and Amanuban regions to occupy one of the largest mining areas. They stayed for two full months, eventually forcing the concessionaire to halt its work and leave. Since then, Baun and other community leaders have organized their towns to unite against and evict mining companies in other areas in Mollo. In 2004, the groups formed a federation of indigenous communities called Organisasi A’ttaemamus (OAT).    

Earlier this month, I set out with 11 other people—including journalists, the Yee-haw Donkey film crew, and Oru Kayak employees and ambassadors—to visit the country and meet with OAT organizers. We hoped to work with them to bring attention to the outdoor recreation possibilities in the area and to start developing an economic alternative to mining—tourism. Through climbing and kayaking, we’d scout new crags and waterways, get a firsthand look at their potential, then promote these locations back home.  

From the Denpasar airport, in Bali, we drove four hours into the mountains. The terrain was steep and loosely cultivated. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the entire Mollo village, including Mama Aleta, who is a U.N. Ambassador, as well as a parade of dancers and musicians. We stayed in a mud hut: the town has minimal electricity and no running water. The toilets are holes in the ground and the beds simple wood planks. 

indonesia-portraits.jpg
(Adam Wells)

After this welcome, we discussed our agenda with the locals. Mama Aleta gave us her blessing to explore and climb the nearby limestone, then led a ceremony to ensure our wellbeing. Then, we set off to explore.

The world-class climbing potential we found was staggering. There is no shortage of limestone, all of it high quality, in unique stalactite-like formations. Towering bands of cliff, riddled with caves and sheer, vertical faces, speckle the area. The rock is clean below a thin layer of moss and dirt. 

After three days of climbing and bolting in this area, we headed home, convinced that rural Indonesia has potential to become a great destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Next, we want to attract more people—and infrastructure—to this area by producing content and publicity to the area (like the article you're reading right now), as well as return in the future to dedicate more time to development, like bolting more climbs and cleaning more trails.    

I want visitors to responsibly experience this area’s natural splendor and to see, first hand, the impact of the mining industry. Tourism revenue already provides a trickle of support to the local community. In the future, as more enthusiasts learn about this destination and ones like it, we can turn this trickle into a flood that supports local industry and protects against mass resource extraction. 

Sportswear Brands Should Use Athletes—Not Models—in Their Ads

6 Jul

I recently read an article on Racked titled “Want to Sell Me Sportswear? Show Me an Athlete,” and it resonated with me as a professional athlete who's never been in a major sportswear ad. It made me ask: Why do big athletic companies, like Nike, Adidas, and Reebok, often choose high-fashion models to pose as female athletes, rather than draw from the ranks of the numerous professional athletes they sponsor?

Here are just a few recent examples of this happening: Bella Hadid is the face of a new Nike campaign for the Cortez sneakers, originally designed for runners in 1972; Karlie Kloss models Adidas’ fashionable performance line, Stella McCartney; and Gigi Hadid plays a boxer for Reebok’s “Perfect Never” campaign. These images of female “athletes” suggest that it is more important that women look stereotypically feminine and lean than be able to perform at an elite level. This doesn't happen nearly as often with men: sports brands seldom use male models as the faces of their fitness lines, instead opting for professional male athletes. 

I find it insulting when major brands choose fashion models instead of real athletes. That tells me they value a certain look and body type over my own skill and the fact that I actually use their performance clothing to perform. Even on a simple marketing level, choosing athletes makes sense to me. Period. Brands need to maintain loyalty to their products and their consumers. Part of the way athletic-wear companies should do this is by marketing their gear on the athletes who actually use it—it’s that simple. 

So why are female athletes passed over in favor of models? 

Well, for one, they have massive social followings that help sell product. Gigi Hadid’s Instagram game (34.9 million followers) is more than three times greater than professional boxer Ronda Rousey’s (9.7). I understand the lure of those numbers. I also understand that celebrity endorsements do not always parallel one’s actual profession. It’s common to see actors or musicians promoting skin care lines, perfumes, cars, and so on. Athletes will often promote items tangential to their sports, too: I have been part of campaigns that have nothing to do with rock climbing, including working with a tire company. (They wanted to exemplify grit and grip.)   

But I believe outdoor brands—especially mainstream ones like Nike and Adidas, which have the broadest reach—have a responsibility to remain authentic. These athletic-wear brands are selling apparel, accessories, and shoes for performance, and they should show the people who have worked every day to perform in that sport at their peak skill level.  

If these brands don’t remain true to that base, they risk alienating people, especially women, from participating in the outdoor world. When we sell sportswear with models, we’re celebrating one body type and failing to depict what strength actually looks like in that sport. When I see a performance brand advertising an athlete, I want to see what those athletes actually look like—muscle intonations, powerful thighs, ripped biceps, and all. 

Some brands are getting it right. Under Armour's marketing campaign featuring Misty Copeland and Lindsey Vonn is incredibly powerful. Even Adidas has done a good job showcasing professional female climbers wearing its Outdoor line. We need more of this.

Brand advertising should reflect a balanced, realistic view of female athletes—from grace and beauty to physical strength, endurance, and power. With this imagery, we can encourage, inspire, and rethink what “fit” looks like. If the marketing campaigns fail to recognize the power of the image of the authentic female athlete, we threaten the empowerment sport can bring.

High-fashion polish is wrong for the outdoor industry. We need to show the grit, unconventional strength, and diverse body types required by the sports we love.